prodigy

How to really practice to get better

From “How to be an expert“:

Maybe the “naaturally talented artist” was simply the one who practiced a hell of a lot more. Or rather, a hell of a lot more deliberately. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent most of his 20+ year career on the study of genuises, prodigies, and superior performers. In the book The New Brain (it was on my coffee table) Richard Restak quotes Ericsson as concluding:

“For the superior performer the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That’s why they don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time.”

So it’s not just how long they practice, it’s how they practice. Basically, it comes down to something like this:

Most of us want to practice the things we’re already good at, and avoid the things we suck at. We stay average or intermediate amateurs forever.

Yet the research says that if we were willing to put in more hours, and to use those hours to practice the things that aren’t so fun, we could become good. Great. Potentially brilliant. We need, as Restak refers to it, “a rage to master.” That dedication to mastery drives the potential expert to focus on the most subtle aspects of performance, and to never be satisfied. There is always more to improve on, and they’re willing to work on the less fun stuff.

Gershwin the prodigy

From Claudia Roth Pierpont’s "Jazzbo", about George Gershwin, in The New Yorker (10 January 2005):

[Gershwin] had been saved by the piano. On a fateful day in 1910, a secondhand upright was hoisted through the family’s Second Avenue window and, to general shock, scapegrace street fighting George, age twelve, sat down and tore through a popular tune like a vaudeville virtuoso. He had never studied a note. Many years later, Gershwin recalled the musical epiphanies of his early childhood: sitting transfixed outside a penny arcade as an automatic piano emitted noises that turned out to be Robinstein’s "Melody in F"; feeling a "flashing revelation of beauty" when the strains of Dvorak’s "Humoresque" reached him from the school auditorium while he was, in fact, outside playing hooky.